Over the past year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has cemented her reputation as a thought leader on economic policy and as a champion of big ideas. But often missing from the public discussion is her track record of tackling key problems successfully and leading complex organizations. I saw this firsthand when I worked closely with her at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).
After reckless lending by the big banks and Wall Street crashed our economy in 2008, Elizabeth stormed Washington with a bold idea: Create a new federal agency with the mission to root out fraud and abuse in the financial marketplace. She brought together a diverse coalition to press for action on Capitol Hill. She got the American people involved in the fight. And she fearlessly battled the special interests — the powerful financial lobby — who were unable to stop her.
In 2010, Congress passed her idea into law, and Elizabeth rolled up her sleeves to build the new consumer agency from scratch. She effectively navigated a complex and often adversarial federal system to get things done.
As we worked together to streamline disclosures that help people “Know Before You Owe,” I found that she focused on delivering tangible benefits for people rather than producing bureaucracy. She encouraged us to take on ambitious projects, set aggressive deadlines and test innovative approaches to persistent problems. She shrugged off personal attacks from special interests, administration foes and even members of Congress, so that everyone else could remain focused on the core mission.
Underestimated business acumen
Elizabeth’s managerial strengths were bolstered by her sophisticated understanding of markets and her nuanced approach to government intervention. She saw that the best way to protect people against corporate abuse is to prevent it altogether. She insisted on a robust approach to fair lending cases based on statistical evidence. They included both “redlining” cases (refusing to lend in certain communities of color) and “reverse redlining” cases (lending in such communities on worse terms than elsewhere).
The Bush administration had sought to weaken the law in this area, but she insisted on enforcing fair lending as a key civil right. At the same time, I could see that she was disciplined in picking her fights. To level the playing field for consumers, she focused intently on the bigger banks. Yet she strongly championed smaller community banks, meeting constantly with them, often on their home turf, to make the case for the new agency.
Some bank executives underestimated her business acumen at their own expense. They saw her as a persuasive public figure without recognizing her depth of knowledge. But Elizabeth dug into the details to grasp the bigger picture.
When mortgage servicing turned into a nationwide problem, she did not approach it based on rhetoric or ideology. Instead, she asked me and my colleagues to analyze the foreclosure crisis and document the magnitude of the harm done to consumers.
In an ensuing meeting of top officials from the Housing and Urban Development, Treasury and Justice departments, she did not mince words: The problem, she told them, was not “mistakes” but rather systematic fraud by the big banks. In the course of that single meeting, she shifted the paradigm enormously, making a persuasive case to demand billions of dollars more in consumer relief. She didn’t pull any punches as she stood up strongly to both industry leaders and senior administration officials.
After Republicans sought to block Elizabeth from becoming the first director of the CFPB, she went to President Barack Obama and recommended me for the job. She believed that my colleagues and I would continue the fight to carry out her vision for protecting consumers. And she was right. Her faith in us motivated us to do just that.